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The Flame Breathers

I write this narrative, not with the idea of contributing any additional scientific data to the discovery of Vulcan, but to put upon the record the real facts of our truly-amazing space voyage.
The newscasters have hailed me as a modern Columbus. Surely I would not want to appear ungracious, unappreciative of all the applause that has been heaped upon me. But I do not deserve it. I did my job for my employers. The Society sent me to make a landing upon Vulcan—if the little planet existed. I found that it does exist; it was exactly where I was told it ought to be. I carried out my instructions, returned and made my report. There is no great heroism in that.
So I am writing the facts of what happened. Just a bald, factual account, without the imaginative trimmings. The real hero of the discovery of Vulcan was young Jan Holden. He did his job—did it well—and he did something just a little extra.
I'm Bob Grant, which of course you have guessed by now. Peter Torrence—the third member of our party—is in the Federal Prison up the Hudson. I had to turn him in.
We were given one of the smaller types of the Bentley—T-44—an alumite cylindrical hull, double-shelled, with the Erentz pressure-current circulating in it. It was a modern, well-equipped little spaceship. In its thirty-foot length of double-decked interior we three were entirely comfortable.... The voyage, past the orbit of Venus and then Mercury as we headed directly for the Sun—using the Sun's full attraction—was amazingly swift and devoid of incident beyond normal space-flight routine. Much of our time was spent in the little forward control turrent—the "green-house," where below, above and to the sides the great glittering abyss of the firmament is spread out in all its amazing glory.
Vulcan, if it existed, would be almost directly behind the Sun now. We had no possible chance of sighting it, we knew, even when, heading inward, we cut the orbit of Mercury. Torrence, almost from the start of the trip, figured we should follow into the attraction of Mercury which was then far to one side.
"From that angle we'll see Vulcan just that much sooner," he argued.
"They told me to head straight in, to twenty-nine million miles," I said. "And that's what I'm doing—obeying orders."
I held our plotted course. Torrence never ceased grumbling about it, and I must admit there was a lot of sense in his argument. He is a big fellow—burly, heavy-set and about my own height, which is six feet one. He had close-clipped hair and a square, heavy face. He's just turned thirty, I understand. That's five years older than I—and I was in charge. Perhaps that irked him. He is unquestionably a headstrong fellow; self-confident. But he obeyed orders, though with grumbling. And as a mechanical technician—no one could do better. He knew the technical workings of the little ship inside out.
"We follow orders?" young Jan Holden said. "And when we reach twenty-nine million miles from the Sun—then we're on our own?"
"Yes," I agreed.
"Then, when we head off to round the Sun, if Vulcan is where they think it is we ought to sight it in a few days?"
"I certainly hope so, Jan."
"I wonder if it's inhabited. I wish it would be." His dark eyes were shining. His thin cheeks, usually pale, were flushed with excitement. He was just eighteen—only a month past the legal minimum age for Interplanetary employment. A slim, romantic-looking boy, he was willing and eager to help in every way. A good cook, expert in handling his cramped quarters and preparing the many synthetic foods with which we were equipped.
"You hope it's inhabited, Jan?" I asked.
"I sure do."
I grinned at him. "Well, if it is, you'll be disappointed to find I'll be doing my best to keep away from whatever living creatures are there. That's a job for a larger expedition than ours."
"Yes, I suppose it is."

Jan often sat with me through our long vigils up there in the green-house. Sometimes he wouldn't speak for an hour—just sitting there dreaming. Sometimes he would talk of the ill-fated Roberts and King Expedition—the only exploratory flight which ever had headed in this close to the Sun. That was five years ago. Roberts and King, with a crew of eight, had never been heard from since.
"I just think they found Vulcan," Jan said once, out of one of his long silences.
"They were told to return after a routine landing," Torrence put in.
"Well then, suppose they crashed their ship," Jan said. "Suppose they can't get back—"
"What we ought to do is sight Vulcan, round it and go home," Torrence said. "To the devil with orders to land. I'd go back and tell them that in my judgment—"
"We'll land," I said. "Determine gravity—meteorological conditions—secure samples of soil, vegetation—what-nots—you know the specifications, Torrence."
If indeed there was any Vulcan. If a landing upon what might be a fiery surface were physically possible....
Another day passed. And then another and another. We were all three tense, expectant. There was little apparent motion in the great starry cyclorama spread around us—just the slow dwindling of Earth and Venus, the monstrous Sun shifting slowly to the right with the starfield behind it progressively becoming visible.
"We're chasing a phantom," Torrence said, on the fourth day, with the Sun now almost abreast of us and some twenty-four million miles distant. "This damned heat! They sent us out for a salary that's a mere pittance—and give us inadequate equipment. No wonder there's been no exploration so close in here."
Bathed in the full, direct Sun-rays our interior air had heated into a torrid swelter. Stripped to the waist, with the sweat glistening on us, we sat in the shrouded green-house.... And then at last I saw Vulcan! A little round, lead-colored blur. Just a dot, but in a few hours it was clear of the intervening Sun. No question of its identity. Vulcan. The new world.
"We did it!" Jan murmured. "Oh, we did it."

It was a busy time, for me especially, those next ninety-six hours. I was soon enabled to calculate, at least roughly, that Vulcan was a world of some eight hundred miles diameter, with an orbit approximately eighteen million miles from the Sun.
"It has an atmosphere?" Jan murmured anxiously.
"Yes, I think so." We kept away from the Sun for a time; and then at last we were able to head directly for Vulcan.
The atmosphere presently was visible. No need for us to use the pressure-suits. I envisaged at first that upon such a little world gravity would be very slight. But now the heavy, metallic quality of its rock-surface was apparent. A world, doubtless much denser than igneous Earth.
It was my plan to land on the side away from the Sun.
We rounded Vulcan at some two million miles out. The clouds were fairly dense in many places; sluggish, slow-moving. There were fires on the Sun side—a temperature there which would make it certainly uninhabitable to any creatures resembling humans....
It was the ninth day after the sighting of Vulcan that quite by chance I discovered its allurite. We were now fairly close over the dark hemisphere, with the Sun occulted behind it. At a thousand miles of altitude, we were dropping slowly down upon the spreading dark disc which now occupied most of our lower firmament. I had been making a series of routine spectro-color-graphs to file with my reports.
Jan heard my muttered exclamation and came crowding to gaze over my shoulder at the dripping little color spectrograph.
"What is it, Bob? Something important?"
"That bond-line there—see it? That's a metal on Vulcan—shining of its own light—radioactive type-A."
That much, I could determine. Then Jan and I looked it up in the Hughson list of Identified Spectrae. It was allurite.
"That's valuable?" Torrence murmured. "Pure allurite—"
I laughed. "It certainly would be, if we could find any sizable deposits here. On Earth, it takes some seventeen tons of the very richest allurium to get maybe a grain of pure allurite. We'll take a look around, try and get a sample of the ore here. If it pans out rich enough, they can send a well-equipped mining expedition."
"We ought to get a bonus for this," Torrence said. "If you don't tell 'em so, I will."

The descent upon Vulcan took another twenty-four hours. Then at last we had passed through a cloud-bank and, at some twenty thousand feet, the new world stretched dark and bleak beneath us. It certainly looked—to Jan's intense disappointment—wholly uninhabited. It was a tumbled, rocky landscape, barren and forbidding. Beneath us there were black ravines and canyons, little jagged peaks and hill-top spires, some of them sharp as needle-points. Off at one of the distant horizons the tiered land, rising up, stretched into the foothills of serrated ranks of mountain peaks which loomed over the jagged dark horizon line.
A great metal desert here. In the fitful starlight, and the mellow light of little crescent Mercury which hung over the mountains like a falling, new moon, the metallic quality of the rock was obvious—sleek, bronzed metal ore, in places polished by erosion so that it shone mirror-like. In other places it was mottled with a greenish cast.
"Well," Jan murmured, "not very hospitable-looking, is it? Don't you suppose there's any moisture, or any vegetation?"
There was no sign of any living creatures beneath us as we drifted diagonally downward. But presently, at lower altitude, I could see gleaming pools of water in the rock-hollows. The remains of a rainstorm here. Then we saw what looked like a great fissure—an open scar rifted in a glistening, polished metallic plateau. Grey-black steam was rising, condensing in the humid night-air. The hidden fires of the bowels of the little planet seemed close at this one point. As we stared, a red glow for a moment tinged the steam with a red and greenish reflection of some subterranean glare, far down.
Nothing but metal desert. But presently, as we slid forward, no more than a few thousand feet above the rocky surface now, Jan murmured suddenly,
"Look off there. Like a little oasis, isn't it?"
There was a patch of what seemed to be rocky soil. Just a few hundred acres in extent, set in a cup-like depression with little buttes and needle-spires and the strewn boulders of the metal waste surrounding it. A clump of tangled vegetation covered it—a fantastic miniature jungle of interlaced, queerly shaped little trees, solid with air-vines and pods and clumps of monstrous, vivid-colored flowers. It was an amazing contrast to the bleakness of the bronze desert.
"Well, that's more like it," Jan exclaimed. "Not all desert, Bob. See that?"
Torrence, with his usual efficient practicality, had been busy getting our landing equipment in order. He paused beside me in the green-house, where I sat at the rocket-stream controls which now were in operation for this atmospheric flight.
"Where you figure on landing?" he asked. "Somewhere about here? You want to locate that allurite?"
"Yes," I agreed.

It is not altogether safe, handling even so small a space-flight ship as ours, in atmosphere at low altitudes. Especially over unknown terrain. It seemed my best course now to make the landing here, secure my rock-samples and make my routine observations. I did not need Torrence to tell me that we were not equipped for extensive exploration of an unknown world. A trip on foot of perhaps a day or two, using the spaceship as a base, would suffice for my records.
"There's a better chance of finding sizable deposits of allurium here than anywhere else?" Torrence suggested. "Don't you think so?"
With that, too, I agreed. He prepared us for a night and a few meals of camping—a huge pack for himself, which with a grin he declared himself amply able to carry; a smaller one for Jan; and my instruments and electro-mining drills for me.
We dropped down within an hour or two, landing with a circular swing into a dim, cauldron-like depression of the desert where the polished ground was nearly level and free of boulders.
That was a thrill to me—my first step into the new world—even though I have experienced it several times before. Laden with our packs, we opened the lower-exit pressure porte. The night air, under heavier pressure than we were maintaining inside, oozed in with a little hiss—moist, queer-smelling air. It seemed at first heavy, oppressive. The acrid smell of chemicals was in it.
The night-temperature was hot—sultry as a summer tropic night on Earth. With the interior gravity shut off as we opened the porte, at once I felt a sense of lightness. But it was not extreme. Despite Vulcan's small size, its great density gives it a gravity comparable to Earth's.
In a little group we stood on the rocky ground with a dark, immense heavy silence around us—a silence that you could seem to hear—and yet a silence which seemed pregnant with the mystery of the unknown. Somehow it made me suddenly think of weapons. Besides our utility-knives, we each had a small, short-range electro-flash gun. I saw that Torrence had his in his hand.
"Put it away," I said. "There's nothing here."
With a grin, he shoved it back into his belt. "Which way?" he demanded. "What will the ore of allurium look like? Green and red spots in sand-colored streaks of rock, that Hughson book says."
I figured that I could recognize it, though I am far from a skilled geologist. Certainly I agreed with Torrence that our most important job was to find some sizable lodes of allurium, measure its probable extent, and take average samples of it back with us.


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